Imaginatively public: the English experience of art as heritage property.

Author:Sax, Joseph L.
Position:Symposium: International Legal Dimensions of Art and Cultural Property

England was once hugely prosperous and possessed an extraordinary share of the world's great art. In the years following the French Revolution, political turmoil in Europe brought a number of superb works of art on the market, and English collectors avidly bought them. (1) Even earlier, young aristocrats returned to England from their grand tours with a keen appreciation of the aesthetic achievements of the continent and the means to acquire any works that pleased them. (2)

With few exceptions, these treasures entered the collections of individuals as their private property. In its scope, this was a unique experience in privatization, unlike both the past and the future. (3) In an earlier time, Europe's great art was generally publicly displayed in churches, public monuments, or held in royal and aristocratic collections where it was displayed to serve political purposes. (4) A gallery of pictures was an indication of princely worth; nobles acquired such galleries to demonstrate their wealth, power, and dignity. (5) In the Middle Ages, the "site for works of art was ... the church, that is, a public place, freely accessible to all who came and worshiped." (6) On the European continent, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the museum in its essentially modern form came into being. Much artwork that had resided in noble collections, and some that had been displayed in churches, was moved into a new sort of public setting viewed as national property. This new setting was part of the nation's cultural patrimony and was made increasingly open to a broader public in accordance with Enlightenment values. (7)

Things proceeded quite differently in England. England did not possess the public religious art of Catholic Europe, nor were its artistic riches as concentrated in royal hands (especially after the dispersal of Charles I's collection following his deposition in 1649). (8) Furthermore, England resisted the development of a national gallery of art like the Louvre when such institutions became the continental pattern. (9) Even after the National Gallery was finally authorized in 1824, it remained a minor factor in the art world for a considerable time; no adequate building was designated for the Gallery until the latter 1830s. (10) The British patricians who owned great private collections neither liked the idea of the state as a principal in the acquisition of art for the nation, (11) nor did they want a national gallery with its French revolutionary connotation of a "peoples' museum"; this notion would propagate the idea that the nation's art was being returned to the masses to whom it ultimately and inherently belonged. (12) Such principles were at odds with the profound commitment of the English elite, both then and now (as custodians of stately homes open to the public), to private property and the individualistic view of social life that underlies it.

The classic nineteenth century upper-class British view was expressed by Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake--respected connoisseur of art, translator of the leading work on English private collections, and wife of Charles Eastlake, a painter and trustee of the Royal Academy who later became the director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake responded to the view of Gustave Waagen, director of the Royal Picture Gallery in Berlin, (13) who had criticized the British Museum for being far behind continental museums in its collecting of old master drawings. (14) She replied:

We have something to say as regards this old complaint. A foreigner naturally ... is accustomed to Governments who ostentatiously supply their subjects with such intellectual food ... to a people as little encouraged as able to cater for themselves. But it is different with us ... The question we should rather ask ourselves is, whether it be more advantageous to a people ... that the taste for art and consequent patronage of it should spring from the Government or from the nation?--and there can be no hesitation as to the answer. With us, as we have shown, the taste of the country has had its root in private impulses ... Shall we stigmatize a Government which has made individuals freer than itself? (15) She goes on to say that a National Gallery is nonetheless desirable and that eventually the liberality of collectors will endow it appropriately (16) so that it reflects their tastes. In the meantime, however, and until such liberality revealed itself, a great deal of very great art reposed in private collections where it was held at the sole will of its owners.

No one at that time doubted that it was desirable for art to be seen, (17) at least by "people of quality." So how did those like Lady Eastlake, who saw the private collector-connoisseur as a symbol of the English devotion to individual liberty, deal with the fact that all this great art was hanging on the walls of private homes rather than in public museums? The standard Victorian response was spelled out by another prominent art expert, Mrs. Anna Jameson, the author of a leading guide to the private galleries of London:

In referring to the vast number of first-rate pictures now in England, scattered through many houses and galleries ... in remote country seats ... shut up half the year--I have heard the wish expressed, that these treasures were assembled in one place--in one national gallery, easily and constantly accessible to all. I cannot say I sympathize with the wish ... True, it is excruciating to see ... how often some titled untitled Goth, indifferent or negligent, has become the very unworthy depositary of treasures which are, in some sort, a possession and glory to the whole civilized world ... If instances of indifferent possessors are numerous, the churlish ones are very few indeed ... The truth is, that every man who possesses beautiful and valuable pictures[] has a natural longing for sympathy in his possession--the wish that others should profit, should admire, perhaps envy. It is undoubtedly true, that should he choose to shut up his doors, he has the power and the right to do so. How far he is right to assert that right, is another question. (18) She then explains that some great collectors have opened their houses to the general public with untoward results.

We can all remember the public days at the Grosvenor Gallery and Bridgewater House. We can all remember the loiterers and loungers, the vulgar starers, the gaping idlers, we used to meet there ... Can we wonder that men of taste--Englishmen, who attach a feeling of sanctity to their homes--should hate the idea of being subjected to such vulgar intrusion, merely because they have a Raphael or a Rubens of celebrity? (19) The solution, Mrs. Jameson explains, can be found in a distinctively English approach that avoids the overbearing statism of the Continent and yet also avoids submission to the mob and the loss of respect for private property. To her, the answer is quite simple: of course these collections should be open, but open only to those who are truly capable of appreciating them. As she put it,

I know not, for my own part, more than one or two isolated instances in which admission has been refused to an artist or a stranger who came properly introduced, or whose name was known. Such things, when they do occur, must be accidental, or if not, they ought to be denounced by opinion, like every other ungentlemanly act--and they are so. (20) To a twenty-first century sensibility, such talk can only seem insufferably and willfully snobbish. Obviously, there were many people who may have wished to see the great art in British collections and who were in no sense to be thought of as "loiterers and loungers ... vulgar starers [or] gaping idlers," (21) and yet who might have more than a bit of trouble being "properly introduced" to, or have their names known by, the Duke of Devonshire or the Marquis of Westminster. The interesting thing about Mrs. Jameson's comment, however, is not that it shows what a prig she is, but that she has something very striking to say about the nature of ownership. Unlike discourse today, which conceives of ownership as unbounded except to the extent it is constrained by government-imposed regulation, for her, as for Lady Eastlake, there is another dimension to ownership: a responsibility that those who possess certain kinds of property owe to the public, a duty that can only be enforced by what she calls "opinion," but which is nonetheless centrally important in determining accessibility to great art. In the same passage quoted above, Mrs. Jameson describes the owner of great works of art as a "depositary of treasures which are, in some sort, a possession and glory to the whole civilized world." (22)

The notion of the "responsible owner," constrained in the use of his property by public sentiment, is intriguing and suggests a dimension of proprietary entitlement (and its limits) that hardly ever appears in contemporary discourse about property. The way in which that idea functioned in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in a setting where the status of private property was perhaps at its all-time summit, should be revealing. What did it then mean to be the owner of "a Raphael or a Rubens of celebrity" in terms of providing some sort of public access to such treasures? How did the English grandees respond to the assertion that they would be considered churlish if they kept their collections locked away and inaccessible to the public (as that elastic concept was evolving)? (23) Such are the questions addressed in the following pages.

The history of access as a proprietary duty begins not in the London townhouses that Mrs. Jameson was discussing, nor with the fabulous art collections that were being accumulated in the last years of the eighteenth century. Rather, it begins in an earlier time and in the country. Although it is widely thought today that tourist visitation at stately homes is a product of...

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